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Art Trading Cards (ATC): the Latest Trend in Art

Updated on February 6, 2011

Art Trading Cards is the latest trend in art!

It started in Switzerland in 1997 and took several years to reach the United States, but Art Trading Cards (ATC) has become a part of the fine arts landscape. These small cards are intended to be traded rather than sold, and represent a unique way of sharing art with friends and peers. Similar in concept and design to sports cards, Art Trading Cards is the latest and hottest trend in the art world.

There is only one rule to creating an Art Trading Card: the card’s dimensions must be 2 ½ x 3 ½ inches. Anything goes once this simple requisite is met, although there are other conventions most artists adhere to. For example, creators typically use the back of the ATC to provide contact information and offer details about their work, including the name of the piece, the media used, and the date of its creation.

An offshoot of the ATC is Art Cards, Editions and Originals (ACEO). These cards are usually created with the intent of being sold, and information will include whether the card is an original or an edition. Unique cards are originals and usually hand-crafted. If it is an edition, it will be signed and numbered in a manner similar to fine art prints.

Cards are meant to be traded in person, but mechanisms exist to facilitate the systematic trading of cards. One such venue in Europe is participation in Card-Left Editions trading. The artist sends 20 cards through the mail and receives a set of 15 cards, each by a different artist, in return. These forums for trading artwork occur at regular intervals and do not require specific styles or media. Cards are also found for sale on Ebay and personal web sites, as well. When cards are sold or traded online or through the mail, a signature card is sometimes created to accompany a set. One side of the signature card will be a self-portrait while the back of the card contains a small fact sheet about the creator.

Plastic sleeves and envelopes are also available to store Art Trading Cards. The sleeves help protect ATCs from damage, while trading card envelopes offer a professional and attractive means to both transport and display your miniature works of art. Due to their relatively small size, plastic sleeves and envelopes are very affordable and ensure your cards remain protected from the wear and tear associated with shipping, presentation and storage.

My signature card

Mike's signature card self-portrait
Mike's signature card self-portrait

How to make an Art Trading Card

With size as the only convention to follow, it is simple to create an ATC. The first step is to envision your miniature drawing, painting or collage. This can be a challenge because creating art in small sizes is a unique endeavor. It is not simply a scaled-down version of a larger piece. If you are accustomed to using your entire arm in sweeping gestures while painting on huge canvases, you might view creating in a smaller size as tricky or frustrating. You might also find yourself altering your style to work in this smaller format. Perhaps details will be simplified or blurred, or a limited palette might be employed. Seek inspiration from the world around you, make quick sketches, and gather ideas for what might be best suited for your style. You might be surprised at how your technique “evolves” under the conditions of creating in a smaller size.

The next step is to select a paper and medium. It is just as important to select the appropriate materials for an ATC as any other project. Many artists use scraps left over from other works, but art material dealers such as Strathmore sell pads or packages of cards pre-cut to the correct size. Illustration board, watercolor paper, Bristol board and more are all available to make it easy to match the correct paper with your favorite medium. You will use the same criteria for selecting a paper for your ATC as with choosing paper for a larger project. Dry media might suggest a paper with some tooth; paint, markers or ink require materials sturdy enough to prevent warping or bleeding. There are no limits, so opt for paper that best meets your needs.

You are now ready to allow your creativity to soar. You might feel most comfortable drawing or painting, but challenge yourself to experiment with collage, digital media, calligraphy or whatever seems intriguing at the moment. There are no restrictions, no barriers and no rights or wrongs, so don’t hold back.

Remember to include any information you feel is important on the back of the card. I had a stamp made for this purpose which states my name, email address and web site. I left space for indicating the medium used, whether it is an original or an edition, and the date. If you don’t want to use a stamp, write the information on your card by hand—it will only add to the originality and creativity of your ATC.

An Art Trading Card by the author

An Art Treading Card by Mike Lickteig:  art marker on plate Bristol board
An Art Treading Card by Mike Lickteig: art marker on plate Bristol board

Looking at an ATC


I completed this ATC last year, and offer it as an example of one approach to Art Trading Cards.  I had a small scrap of plate Bristol board and chose to use it for my ATC.  Plate Bristol isn’t an ideal surface for paint or pastels, and I subsequently elected to use art markers to establish both line and color.  After making a few quick sketches of landscapes, I decided to draw a mountain range at sunset. 

My composition was simple—mountains, the sun and a few clouds.  The clouds lead the eye toward the setting sun, and the lines delineating the mountain range also point upward, allowing the eye to move in a circular motion.  Thick lines on a small card inherently eliminated many details appropriate for a larger piece, and I considered it a challenge to suggest depth and scope with so few lines.  I selected a palette of warm colors to indicate heat and intensity, but threw in some blues for my clouds in contrast.  I wanted a blood red sky, and opted to make the sun an even darker shade of red.  This decision was supported by the bold black outlines I intended to use from the beginning.  Without the outlines, the sun would appear washed out in contrast to the brighter sky.

The black, brown and green mountain range is an example of artistic license.  If the sun is setting on the far side of the mountains, its near side (our point of view) would be cast in shadows and the greens would be darker.  I didn’t consider this a fatal flaw and allowed myself to take some liberties with light and shadow since the colors were overly bright to begin with.

A hard black line suggests the soft periphery of the clouds, and the curled patterns in their edges are the most intricate in the drawing.  The task of indicating soft edges with a hard line is challenging, but the 2 ½ x 3 ½ inch surface allows our eyes to accept the lack of detail.  Colorless blenders smoothed out the colors and further point our eyes toward the setting sun.

And that, my friends, is one of my Art Trading Cards.  It took perhaps an hour or less to complete and if I can do it, you can, too!  Happy trading, and anyone wishing to trade a card or two should let me know!


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